Is there something especially American about the Whitney Museum of American Art’s inability to find a home it can call its own? The Whitney has now announced plans to leave its building on Madison and 75th Street for the Meatpacking District, sixty blocks south. The architect is Renzo Piano, the European with a preternatural gift for making American museum trustees believe they are safe in his hands. (The man takes on another museum commission more or less once a month, or so it seems.) The Whitney’s plan for an 18,000 square foot special exhibition gallery, said to be the largest column-free museum gallery in the city, makes this sound like just another case of the edifice complex that has gripped American museums for a generation. But the Whitney’s story is stranger than that. There’s a wanderlust built into the museum’s DNA. The Whitney is constitutionally—historically—incapable of finding happiness in any New York neighborhood. When the new building opens in 2015, the museum will have tried four entirely different parts of town in its eighty-plus-year history. Like the neurotic who imagines that a new domicile will cure what ails him, the Whitney keeps changing addresses. Do the people who run the place think that real estate equals happiness? (Many New Yorkers do.)
The groundbreaking ceremony was just another Tuesday morning in Manhattan, with a passage from Steve Reich’s Drumming performed by So Percussion and dancers from STREB Extreme Action Company jumping through panes of glass while a huge pile of dirt was dumped on Elizabeth Streb’s head. Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, seemed unaware that the Whitney is a mature institution with a long record of accomplishment, or why else would he have spoken about “what we hope to become” and “begin[ning] anew?” Renzo Piano held aloft a small design for the new museum with its spaceship-like shape and described it as a meteorite that would be dropped on Gansevoort Street, right next to the entrance to the High Line, New York’s favorite new spot for promenading. Architects love the Meatpacking District, where sleek condo towers are rising and the apartments are snapped up by hedge fund managers who have never heard of Henri Murger but imagine they’re living the latest version of la vie de bohème.
Weinberg and the Whitney trustees will say they have struggled mightily to remain on Madison Avenue and expand, only to find their plans thwarted time and again by zoning regulations. Like any self-respecting neurotic, the Whitney has its reasons for moving—damn good reasons, too. And they claim to be returning to their original stomping grounds, Greenwich Village, where Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the museum on Eighth Street in 1931. But the Meatpacking District—the city’s latest case of wholesale giving way to retail with a vengeance—has an entirely different history and ambience than the Village, where the Whitney’s original digs now house the New York Studio School, one of those rare New York institutions with a bohemian heart that still beats. The Whitney is once again looking outside itself for an answer to a perpetual identity crisis that has included real estate troubles and money troubles, not to mention conflicts about the shape of the collection and the direction of the exhibition program. In 1954, the museum moved from 10 West Eighth Street to 22 West 54th Street, explaining that Greenwich Village “was no longer the artistic center of New York.” Like the Museum of Modern Art, which was now its neighbor, the Whitney was going to embrace midtown’s hustle and bustle, which had long been an element in MoMA’s ambience. And so began the Whitney’s keeping-up-with-MoMA phase. Visitors could walk straight from one museum to the other—they were poised back to back on the block between 53rd and 54th Streets—and the comparison did not generally work in the Whitney’s favor. Not surprisingly, a few years later, the Whitney felt stifled by its proximity to MoMA. And so in 1966 it was time to move again, now to the Upper East Side and a new building designed by Marcel Breuer, a man with roots at the Bauhaus, although he was then in his raw concrete, elegantly art brut phase. At the groundbreaking, Piano hadn’t finished paying his respects to Breuer’s Whitney before he was announcing that the Whitney would be “much better here”—i.e. in the Meatpacking District—“than up there.” Architects are always trying to obliterate their predecessors.
I realize the Whitney feels that it needs more space. That’s always what museums say when they go on a building jag. When the Museum of Modern Art opened its new building in 2004—and in the process came close to totally obliterating the museum’s glorious tradition of strenuous seriousness—there was not a significantly stronger representation of the permanent collection. The same could turn out to be true with the Whitney. What museums are really looking for is not more exhibition space, per se—and certainly not more space for under-appreciated aspects of the permanent collection—but rather for spaces large enough for a Richard Serra sculpture or a Matthew Barney installation. That stuff will impress potential donors, who couldn’t tell a Charles Demuth from an Arthur Dove if their lives depended on it. Renzo Piano is a man of taste, and he has recently scored a notable success with the new galleries for modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago. More generally, though, he produces a Walmart modernism, whether for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles or the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Breuer’s Madison Avenue building, although anything but a masterpiece, is full of a brilliant architect’s elegant ideas, and over the years this once belligerent interloper on an earlier, more genteel East Side has become a respected if not always beloved element in the city’s architectural melting pot. I would love to see the sunken front courtyard reintegrated into what is now the restaurant space as one unified sculpture gallery, as it can be seen in photographs from the 1960s. But why struggle with the enormous challenges of restoration and conservation when you can just pick up and move to the Meatpacking District? (The Metropolitan Museum of Art will be taking over the Breuer building, an arrangement that has its ironies, given that the Whitney had been discussing merging with the Met in the 1940s.)
Adam Weinberg is kidding himself if he really believes, as he said at the groundbreaking, that the Whitney is “returning to its roots.” In moving downtown, the Whitney is simply trading one posh neighborhood for another. Farewell, Calvin Klein and Barneys. Hello, Stella McCartney and Jeffrey. If buzz is what the Whitney is looking for, there is no doubt they’re going to find it. But the buzz will fade. And the museum’s perennial discontent will no doubt return. The Whitney’s wanderlust is one manifestation of a never-ending struggle to understand the nature of American art. What is American about American art? What is not American about American art? The questions are real. But the answers to such questions, which are questions about the place we call home, will never be discovered by an institution that is forever running away from home. The Whitney, which once aimed to make the case for American artists who lived in the shadow of Europe, now worries about being eclipsed by globalism. What better place to reinvent the Whitney Museum of American Art as a global brand than in the Meatpacking District, where the European and Asian tourists roam? Anyway, I fear that by now the trouble with the Whitney goes way beyond some deep discomfort with the nature of American art. A trustee who spoke at the groundbreaking, in what was surely meant as a humorous remark, observed that despite all the time the Whitney staff has been devoting to the new building, “every once in a while, they still have time to think about art.” Amid all the new, high end real estate in the Meatpacking District, high art can look entirely beside the point. At the groundbreaking it was a dancer—an artist—who had a pile of dirt dumped on her head.
Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.
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